On "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," a quintessential blues classic, Muddy Waters offers an almost Buddhist examination of the nature of possession. With lines like "Had a sweet little girl, I lose my baby, boy ain't that bad...Had a sweet little home, it got burned down, people ain't that bad/My own fault, people ain't that bad/You can't spend what you ain't got/You can't lose some little girl you ain't never had," the singer/composer sums up the futile notions of both material possession and the impermanence of elusive human relationships.
Resonating with universal sentiment, written in working-man's vernacular ("Ain't it the truth, boys?" he asks at one point), Waters points out the emotional and financial costs of human and material attachment, while simultaneously offering a life philosophy, all found in the single title refrain. "You can't lose what you ain't never had" can be read two ways: First, the phrase challenges the idea that one can ever truly possess anything or anyone. "Had a sweet little girl," begins the singer. But he finishes with the refrain, thus concluding that he never "had" her to begin with. Additionally, the line can be read in the context of loss; believing you possess something or someone and losing them, thus bringing on suffering. Such a fallout can be avoided by a philosophy that starts with the given "you can't lose what you ain't never had"; in other words, don't become too attached in earthly relationships or material possessions, as you will only suffer when they are lost.
The 1964 recording of the song -- from the LP Folk Singer -- features Waters' legendary Chess session band with Otis Spann on piano, Francis Clay on drums, Willie Dixon on bass, and some combination of Sammy Lawhorn, Pee Wee Madison, and Buddy Guy (on acoustic) on guitar. The group just plain grooves, while Spann peppers the track with unparalleled piano figures in between Waters' virtuoso slide riffs.
The Allman Brothers covered the song as "Can't Lose What You Never Had" on the otherwise ho-hum Win, Lose, or Draw (1975), reinventing the song as a funk-rock-blues. With Gregg Allman providing a deep soul vocal, Chuck Leavell an excellent piano solo, and Dickey Betts his estimable self on a blistering guitar solo, the version manages to capitalize on and rejuvenate Waters' original.